25 Jan 2024

Renovating a Sustainable Holiday Home

Renovating a Sustainable Holiday Home

We've been following Big House on the Hill on Instagram for a while now, and share a love of all things sustainable, second hand and vintage. Along with their professional experience working in hotel interiors, husband and wife Emily and James, have renovated the 18th-century home into a stunning destination property, catering for holidays, special celebrations and get-togethers.

Below, Emily shares her experience of renovating Big House on the Hill and the many lessons learnt along the way.

Tell us about Big House on the Hill.

The Big House on the Hill was built in c1730. It's a loose translation of its Welsh name; 'Plas Uchaf' (literally meaning 'Upper Mansion'). The house stands in an elevated, unique position overlooking the Tanat Valley in Powys, Wales, surrounded by beautiful gardens and landscape.
The house - Big House on the Hill - Plas Uchaf
My husband James and I have lovingly and gently restored the house after we moved to the area from Hampshire. After over ten years in the interiors industry working for different hotel groups, we wanted to escape the rat race and create something more sustainable and in keeping with our own ethos.
Big House on the Hill is available to hire on an exclusive-use basis, either self-catered or with a private chef. Across three floors, the house comfortably sleeps 14 in seven individual bedrooms with seven bathrooms. The elegant spaces are full of period features alongside modern comforts, providing the perfect space for celebrations, reunions, holidays and family get-togethers.
See booking info and more on Emily's website.
We know sustainability is important to you. What were the challenges (or surprises!) you encountered when curating a sustainably-minded destination home?
It was important from the beginning that we tried to do as much of the project keeping sustainability in mind, and I think the biggest surprise I had was just how much you can do. I thought we'd have to make so many more compromises either for budget or availability reasons but it wasn't the case.
I had no idea how many really amazing bathroom fittings were available second-hand. We sourced some brilliant shower valves and gold-plated taps for a fraction of the cost, and still cheaper than low-quality new ones. Our plumber was a bit bemused, but the extra cups of tea and biscuits we had to ply him with paid off, and even he now agrees that it was a good idea!
The bathroom - Second-hand bath fittings sourced by Emily .
Another surprise was just how much I love the paint we used - Edward Bulmer Natural Paints. I was slightly dubious, but now I'm a firm believer that wherever I can use plant-based paint, I will. The quality of light that reflects off the surface and the fact that the walls can breathe properly (we have lime plaster walls in much of the house) makes such a difference. I love the natural colours too, they seem to sit gently with the age of the house and all its original features.
How did you choose the style of the interiors?
I'd previously worked in commercial interiors for over ten years, so ironically, my biggest challenge was being my own client and setting my own brief! I'd just completed a year of 'buying nothing new' before we moved and found it surprisingly fun to tap into my love of sewing, craft and all things antiques and vintage.
The attic room - antique and vintage fabric sourced by Emily
Given the fun I'd found in buying nothing new, I set myself the challenge of seeing whether it was possible to create a sustainably-minded interior without being minimalistic; whilst retaining the character and atmosphere a house of this scale needs.
In terms of style - I didn't have a specific target audience in mind. I wanted the house to feel welcoming to all - a gentle and matriarchal space that gives the feeling of 'going home for Christmas' all year round.
The Bedroom - Styled with vintage fabrics and antique furniture.
Your rooms include some stunning fabrics and antique furniture, which was your favourite room to design?
Thank you - one of my favourite rooms is now the TV room after I repainted it this Spring in Malahide. The same shade you had on your Focus stand this year. I found a beautiful ebonised Victorian drawer set for this room, which fitted the recess perfectly - a total bargain at £150 on marketplace.
The TV room - painted in Malahide by Edward Bulmer with second-hand antique draws.
One of the best finds was the free antique enamel kitchen sink that came with the Smallbone of Devizes kitchen we bought from a secondhand kitchen dealer. We repainted the kitchen and bought ex-display Perrin & Rowe taps on eBay, and carefully reused the existing tiles.
The kitchen - sourced second-hand
I also really love using vintage fabrics, and it's been fun to make up cushions and lampshades for the bedrooms. I've also enjoyed pairing antique furniture with more contemporary fabrics, and reupholstering ottomans and chairs for the lounges.
Sustainable choices are sometimes associated with expense. How did you balance sustainability within a budget? Do you have any top tips for others designing commercial holiday lets?
On balance, I think being sustainably minded about the project actually saved us money. Not settling for the obvious 'buying new' option made us think harder about each element and ask what was possible each time rather than just doing the easy option. It definitely took us more time, and there were a few dud eBay purchases on the way, but I'd wholeheartedly recommend people try it.
My advice to someone wanting to be more mindful whilst curating a holiday home project would be:
- Allow yourself more time, as some solutions may cost less but take longer and more elbow grease!
- Be flexible about the end result - you may find a bargain item you love and then rework a scheme to go with it.
- Enjoy finding things you love and that make you smile. Chances are, if you like it, other people will, and there are some amazing Instagram accounts for inspiration if you're stuck on where to start.
- Oh, and hire a van! We had a van for the entire project, and it more than paid for itself in saving delivery charges and being able to collect marketplace and antique fair finds. Also, all the lifting and carrying meant the gym membership could go!
Emily in the van they rented during renovations.
What are some of your favourite fabrics currently on our website?
I love the Appen Tulip Stripe. We made headboards in this, and I think it's really unusual and striking against the dark blue walls.
This Hazleton House fabric is definitely on my dream wishlist!